Last month, UNICEF staff visited Singularity University to learn about how new technologies could help their work reach more children – and expand their force for change! They also challenged the University’s students and resident entrepreneurs to find new ways to address the major challenges children face today. Here are the challenges they posed.

Dr. Landry Tsangue, from UNICEF Zambia, presented to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Dr. Landry Tsague, from UNICEF Zambia, presented to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

Dr. Landry Tsague, from UNICEF Zambia, presented UReport, the peer-to–peer HIV counseling service conducted completely through SMS – and how it morphed into a powerful tool for influencing government policies. His biggest challenge? Honoring the trust instilled in the UReport system by young people. When they ask for help and information on issues unrelated to HIV, Landry wants the service to be able to answer them. “It’s one door, many windows,” he says, referring to how UReport began in order to focus on a single issue, but has since provided a view into the multifaceted needs of young people. Mobile phones have allowed him and UNICEF into the lives of young people who have so many questions but lack access to the answers they need in their day-to-day lives. How can he provide more of those answers? What would that service look like?

Pernille Ironside presented RapidFTR to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Pernille Ironside presented RapidFTR to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

Pernille Ironside, Chief of Field Office in Gaza, recounted how she and her team deployed RapidFTR, an SMS-based tool that helps reunite families in crisis situations, after Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Singularity students were impressed by the ingenuity of the app, particularly in contrast to what had existed before it – suitcases of paperwork that child protection teams had to lug around and keep track of in order to match the cases of separated and unaccompanied children and their families. They were also struck by the clever way volunteers hacked motorcycle batteries to charge phones in areas with no power. But Pernille stressed that the key to successful family reunifications after Haiyan was tapping into an existing network that knew the region well – the local law enforcement and social welfare forces – and training them to use RapidFTR and integrate it into their legal and social systems.

James Cranwell-Ward talked about the challenge of educating Syrian refugee children. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
James Cranwell-Ward talked about the challenge of educating Syrian refugee children. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

How can we reach the tens of thousands of children who are out of school because of the crisis in Syria? James Cranwell-Ward, from UNICEF Lebanon, has developed a promising answer to that question. Using Raspberry Pi, a cheap computer hard drive the size of a credit card, a low-cost screen, and e-learning modules made specifically for low- or no-internet environments, James has created what is essentially a classroom in a screen. While online education isn’t new, configuring all the different parts that enable online learning to happen in refugee camps is. James will be training teachers to use the devices, sourcing keyboards and mouses from local suppliers, and making computer literacy – learning how the computer works, and even basic coding skills – part of the curriculum. He’s running a pilot this summer in Lebanon.

Gary Stahl, Unicef Representative in Brazil, spoke about the challenge of making sure all children in Brazil can attend school. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Gary Stahl, UNICEF Representative in Brazil, spoke about the challenge of making sure all children in Brazil can attend school. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

91.5% of children in Brazil are in school, according to the 2010 census. An impressive figure, considering how far the country has come in the past 20 years. But who are the 8.5% – 3.8 million children – who are out of school? What’s standing in their way? And how do we get them back into the classroom? These are the questions that Gary Stahl, UNICEF’s representative in Brazil, wants to answer through a census powered by a new smartphone app. UNICEF Brazil has put together a coalition of partners interested in tackling this challenge, including a major telecoms company, municipal governments and other civil society groups. Still, locating all the out-of-school children in far-flung regions of Brazil is a daunting task. But by partnering with Natura, a door-to-door beauty company with a large sales force that canvasses every inch of the country, the census has a better chance of reaching and counting each out-of-school child. Follow UNICEF Brazil on Twitter to follow the progress of this project.

Priscilla Chomba-Kinye presents the challenges of testing infants for HIV in Zambia. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa presents the challenges of testing infants for HIV in Zambia. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

When days matter dearly for treating newborns who have HIV, the fact that many parents wait upwards of two months or more for their infant’s HIV test results is a huge issue in Zambia. This wait time was halved thanks to Project Mwana, which allows parents to receive their babies’ test results through SMS. But blood samples still need to travel up to a month to reach one of the three HIV testing labs in the country. Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa, from UNICEF Zambia, wants to figure out a way to reduce this wait time even more. Students and experts at Singularity had lots of ideas about how to do that – a few might come to fruition. Watch this space for updates about Priscilla’s project.

Lauren Holmes
Digital Strategy Section, Division of Communication
UNICEF NYHQ

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Related stories:

UReport providing counseling services on HIV and STIs

RapidFTR serves as a force for change in some of the world’s most complex emergencies

Inexpensive screens for UNICEF Raspberry Pi for Learning Initiative

Reducing medical test delays from 30 days to 30 seconds (Part 2 of 4: Innovation in Zambia)

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